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Josh Reviews Lady Bird

Set in 2002, Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird tells the story of a teenaged girl, Christine (though she prefers to go by “Lady Bird” — her given name in that, as she says in the film, “it was given to me, by me”) growing up in Sacramento.  Lady Bird is desperate to get out of Sacramento, and she has plans to attend a liberal arts college on the East Coast, though the combination of her family’s tight finances and her own poor grades seems like an insurmountable obstacle to that dream.  The film unfolds over the course of Lady Bird’s senior year in high school.  We see her move through two romantic relationships and different friend circles, an often tumultuous relationship with her mother, and an exploration of various interests (such as her involvement in the school’s drama troupe, in which she finds that the only roles she can get are made-up parts like “the tempest” in The Tempest).

I have always enjoyed Greta Gerwig’s work as an actress, but in Lady Bird (her first film in which she is solo-credited as a writer and director) we see the announcement of an extraordinary talent behind-the-camera.  I absolutely adored this film.  It’s a riveting, wonderfully honest look at adolescence-on-the-cusp-of-adulthood.  The film is very funny, and also deeply emotionally affecting.  I was in tears for much of the second half.  I love a great coming-of-age film, and Lady Bird steps instantly into the pantheon.

The film is anchored by yet another incredible performance by Saoirse Ronan (who was so great in Brooklyn).  The film is blunt in depicting how annoying a super-sure-of-themself teenager can be; how selfish and destructive and clueless even a sweet, trying-to-be-good teenager usually is.  This wouldn’t work if the actress playing Lady Bird wasn’t able to win us over with the character’s inner life, with her warmth and the passion with which she feels everything in her day-to-day life.  Ms. Ronan is brilliant in the role, taking what is already a well-written, thoughtfully crafted strong female character and elevating it into an instantly memorable performance that truly sings.  It’s a fantastic piece of work.  And Ms. Ronan’s effortless skill at her accent (masking her natural Irish accent) is quite impressive.

Ms. Ronan is surrounded by a spectacular ensemble of actors, just as Lady Bird’s character is surrounded by a wonderful group of supporting characters who have each been crafted by Ms. Gerwig with attention and love.  After Ms. Ronan, the film’s next stand-out is Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) as Lady Bird’s mother, Marion.  This is a phenomenal performance, richly textured.  Marion and Lady Bird have an often antagonistic relationship, and Ms. Metcalf plays those dramatic moments with fire and heft.  But at every moment, she (assisted by Ms. Gerwig’s wonderful script) shows us Marion’s inner life; that she is her own person who thinks and feels.  She’s not just a one-dimensional foil to Lady Bird.  There is a magnificent, silent scene towards the end of the film, in which we see Marion drive away after dropping Lady Bird off at the airport.  The entire scene is played on Ms. Metcalf’s face, and it is an extraordinary moment of acting, as Ms. Metcalf takes the audience through the rollercoaster of emotions that Marion is feeling at that moment, without speaking a single world.  It’s incredible.

The playwright Tracy Letts is also terrific as Lady Bird’s father, Larry.  Lady Bird has a much easier time relating to her father than she does her mother, and vice versa.  But just as the film avoids turning Marion into a villain, the film also allows us to see Larry’s weaknesses and failings.  Mr. Letts plays every scene with a very gentle touch and a quiet voice.  It’s a wonderful character and a wonderful performance.  Lucas Hedges (Moonrise KingdomManchester by the Sea) plays Danny, a theater boy who Lady Bird begins dating towards the beginning of the school year.  Timothée Chalamet is also great as Kyle, the moody musician who we see Lady Bird get involved with later in the year.  Beanie Feldstein was one of the best things about Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and she’s so much fun here as Julie, Lady Bird’s best friend.  Jordan Rodrigues and Marielle Scott are also great in smaller supporting roles as Lady Bird’s brother, Miguel, and Miguel’s girlfriend Shelly.

One of the many things I love about Lady Bird is how the film avoids any sort of cliche movie villains.  Lady Bird’s mom is tough on her and often doesn’t understand her, just as the moms of teenagers often are.  But she’s not an evil caricature — the film works hard to allow you to see her point of view just as clearly as you see Lady Bird’s.  Lady Bird often bickers with her brother and his girlfriend, but the film allows the audience moments to get to know those characters as well, to see their three-dimensionality and the way that they are not just enemies or obstacles to Lady Bird as these characters often would be in movies.  Even Lady Bird’s Catholic School setting, and the nun who is the principal, are depicted with remarkable warmth.  You’d think we’d see this school as a terrible, stifling place for the free-spirited Lady Bird.  But that’s not how things are at all.  The school seems like a lovely place, with friendly and supportive teachers and a lovely arts program.  The nun who is the principal deals with Lady Bird with remarkable good humor (even when Lady Bird is involved with vandalizing her car as a prank) and gentle grace.  I am bowled over by the sophistication of Ms. Gerwig’s writing and direction.

(I also loved how naturalistic the film was in its portrayal of Lady Bird’s journey over the course of this eventful year in her life.  Yes, she does learn and grow as a person.  But the film avoids suggesting that she has had any movie-style revelations that will Change Her Life Forever.  I was surprised, at first, that the film didn’t end with Lady Bird’s going off to college.  But that short vignette we see of Lady Bird at college at the end of the film is important — we see that she hasn’t transformed into a perfect angel.  She is still who she is; she is still going to mess up and make some bad decisions.  But when she calls her mother, we can also see that she has begun to grow and change.)

Lady Bird is set in 2002, and that era, so soon after 9/11 and with the Iraq war just beginning, permeates the film with great specificity.  The general atmosphere of the times; the clothes; the music — all of this is brought to life in Lady Bird with a terrific attention to detail that enhances the film without drowning us in period references.  The film is also a love letter to Sacramento, even though Lady Bird herself spends most of the film trying to find a way to leave.  I was not surprised, after the film, to discover that Ms. Gerwig is from Sacramento.  I find that the best artists are able to tell very personal, very specific stories that, in so doing, become universal, and that is exactly what Ms. Gerwig and her team have done here.

I was bowled over by Lady Bird.  Ms. Gerwig and Ms. Ronan have collaborated — along with a host of other talented women and men — to create a beautiful character study that I found to be deeply moving and resonant.  I can’t wait to see it again.

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